Gramarye

 

gramarye

So Rudyard Kipling in ‘Puck’s Song’ from Puck of Pooks Hill. ‘Gramarye’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning both ‘grammar’ and also ‘occult learning, magic’. Another form of the word is ‘glamour’ in the sense of ‘enchantment’. Where does ‘grammar’ merge into ‘glamour’ to make magic? Consider that the earliest books of instruction for welsh bards, based on the even earlier purely oral methods of instruction, are known as ‘Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid’ (Grammars of the Chief Bards). Grammar, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as the ‘mother of the arts’. The secrets of the bards of Ynys Prydain were revealed alongside grammatical instruction in these handbooks. Versification and the structure of language were seen as one and the same study: the keys to the mysteries.

We are talking here of a time when literacy was possessed by only a few, and fewer still who were not using it more or less exclusively for ecclesiastical purposes in Latin. These select few were the holders of a skill which enabled them to give shape to a developing tradition to which only they had access. So to manipulate its history, and the ability to pass it on to the future, was an act of power involving both ‘occult knowledge’ and the skill to use it.

But, as the bardic grammars also make clear, both cynghanedd (the music of the language) and the traditional verse forms (the artistic shape of the language) are held within language itself, part of its hidden grammar which the bards had the power to reveal. As one modern theorist of cynghanedd puts it, the bards were instructed to “dathla yr anweledig yn weledig” {*} (celebrate the invisible into visibility). The same theorist also asserts that language has developed not simply as a denotive medium for naming and describing things in the everyday world, but also carries a deeper structure of meaning which may be hidden in its everyday use but which has the power to reveal otherness and, from that revelation, to create articulations of a hidden world. The welsh bards were special in that they produced an institutionalisation of this idea in the bardic grammars.

So grammar becomes glamour or enchantment, glossed as ‘gramarye’ in English in spite of there being no tradition of arcane handbooks of bardic practice in that language. But any inspired poet, or awenydd, in any language, will wish to fulfil the instinct to carry meaning from the hidden realms into the cultural sphere of common conversation and, by doing so, to infuse the world we know with hidden meaning. This is the only grammar that counts.

{*}  R. M. Jones  Meddwl y Gynghanedd  (Barddas, 2005)

Taliesin and the Brythonic Gods

Gwydion

 

Some have supposed that Taliesin was a god whose identity – and perhaps name – became confused with the historical bard of the 6th century Brythonic warlord Urien of Rheged.[i]  Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin were written by later awenyddion who adopted his mantle and sought to develop his mythos. So his place among the gods, or his relation to them, became less clear as he gained legendary significance as a bard/awenydd.  In their later literary representation, the gods themselves, and their relationships to each other, became interlaced as the weavers of song wove their stories into more complex narratives. What follows is an attempt to identify a few threads stitched into the later medieval tapestry.

In the poem known as ‘Cad Goddeu’ (Battle of the Trees) in The Book of Taliesin, Gwydion conjures a host of trees to assist in the battle. The poem also asserts that Taliesin himself was created out of plants, earth and ‘water from the ninth wave’ by Math and Gwydion, in much the same way they created Blodeuedd in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. No reason is given for the battle in the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem itself, but No. 84 of Trioedd Ynys Prydein says that it was fought for ‘a bitch, a roebuck and a lapwing’. The Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi contains other examples of Gwydion’s magical abilities, including an episode where he travels from North to South Wales to trick Pryderi into giving him some pigs that were a gift from the Otherworld domain of Annwn. Gwydion later kills Pryderi when they engage in man-to-man combat as part of the war which breaks out as a result of Gwydion’s trickery. But there might be an older version of this story in which Gwydion’s brother Amaethon actually raids Annwn itself, not for pigs but for a white roebuck and a young hound. The story is contained in the Peniarth manuscripts (No. 98B) and records two englyn verses with some explanatory prose. It is thought that the englyns must be older than the prose which refers to the ‘Cad Goddeu’ by an alternative name of ‘Cad Achren’. It says that :

“This battle took place because of a white roe deer and a young hound which came from Annwn. They were taken by Amaethon fab Dôn . Because of this Arawn, King of Annwn, attacked Amaethon.” [ii]

The text goes on to say that there was a person on either side of the battle whose name was not known but if guessed it would ensure that the battle would be won by the side that guessed correctly. On one side this person was a woman called Achren. On the other a man called Brân. It is then said that Gwydion sang two englyns:

[Like this]

Steady are my horse’s hooves as I spur him on
The alder sprigs held high on the left
Brân is your name, of the shining crest.

Or like this:

Steady are my horse’s hooves on the day of battle
The alder sprigs held high in your hand
Brân in your coat of mail with [alder] sprigs on it
The good Amaethon won this battle. [ii]

This must mean that Brân was with Arawn and the woman Achren was with Amaethon. If this is the Bendigeidfran of the Second Branch of The Mabinogi then his presence with the Otherworld troops might go some way to explaining his ‘blessed’ appellation and the description of him as a giant. The ascription to him of alder sprigs fits the ‘Cad Goddeu’ where alder is said to be in the vanguard of the battle which is also a characteristic of Brân in The Mabinogi. The name-guessing game is a well-established folklore motif, most well-known in the story of Rumpelstiltskin as given by the Brothers Grimm, though I know of no other example of it in Brythonic lore. The ‘Cad Achren’ story suggests that the conflict between Gwydion and Pryderi in The Mabinogi, which takes place entirely between North and South Wales, is a re-telling of an earlier tale of a conflict between the Children of Dôn and Arawn in Annwn. Amaethon does not appear with his siblings in The Mabinogi tale so a story which includes him does suggest an earlier provenance.

Instead of pigs this story cites a white roebuck and a young hound as the cause of the battle, two of the three items cited in the Triad as the cause of the ‘Cad Goddeu’. It would be helpful to know the significance of these animals in this case but the story as it has survived appears to be an incomplete fragment preserved only to (partly) explain the verses. Amaethon is usually identified as a god of agriculture and agricultural gods do sometimes become gods of war.[iii] Gwydion is clearly portrayed as a magical adept and trickster, consonant with his appearance in The Mabinogi. Although the suggestion is that Amaethon stole the deer and hound from Arawn, this may not be a raid on Annwn from Thisworld, but a war between different groups of deities. If so the war could be within Annwn itself as with the conflict between Arawn and so Pryderi and Hafgan in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, or possibly between different otherworlds. In one of the ‘conversation’ poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn ap Nudd speaks of his role as a harvester of souls not just in Thisworld but in Otherworld battles too [see HERE ~>]. In another of these conversation poems Taliesin refuses the invitation of Ugnach (a probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd –[ see HERE~>]) and instead says he is going to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion. ‘Caer Gwydion’ or ‘Caer Aranrhod’ (the fort of Gwydion’s sister) are names for the Milky Way. Might they also indicate an alternative Otherworld and is this where Taliesin is heading?

If we are dealing with two opposing group of deities , one linked to Annwn and led by Arawn (another probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd) and also including Pryderi, Brân and indeed the other chief characters of Branches 1-3 of The Mabinogi, opposed to the family of Dôn, some of whom feature in the Fourth Branch but also include Amaethon and Gofannon, then where does Taliesin fit? The author or redactor of the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem in The Book of Taliesin (probably the 12th century awenydd Prydydd y Moch [iv]), wearing the mantle of Taliesin, clearly wants to place him as a significant presence in the battle, and to suggest a divine origin for the bard, shaped by the magic of Math and Gwydion and brought into being by the Divine mother Modron. Taliesin is a presence in other conflicts with Annwn, notably joining Arthur’s raid in the ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ poem. In ‘Cad Achren’ he appears to be on the same side as Amaethon and Gwydion if this battle is the same as the ‘Cad Goddeu’ as the prose attached to the englyns sung by Gwydion asserts. But he is said elsewhere to keep company with Brân and Pryderi. [v]. When he joins Arthur’s raid on Annwn he might have a purpose other than the desire for loot as I have intuited [HERE~>]. He is a shape-shifter, a trickster and an all-round slippery customer who makes it hard for us to pin him down. He seems closest in nature to Gwydion who is himself a shape-shifter, a master story-teller and chanter of verse for magical purposes. It may be they both originate in a trickster deity linked to the source of awen who may have been tricksy in causing conflict between the gods too.


References

[i] Ifor Williams Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)
[ii]My translation from the text as given by Ian Hughes in the introduction to his edition of Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) . What follows is based both on his discussion in Welsh (p. xxvii), and that of Rachel Bromwich in English in Trioedd Ynys Prydein (p.p. 218-19).
[iii] The most well-known example is Mars who protected agriculture as well as being a god of war.
[iv] As suggested by Marged Haycock : Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin pp. 27-30
[v] e.g in The Second Branch of The Mabinogi where he is one of the seven who returned with Bendigeidfran from Ireland and sojourned with the head of Brân in Gwales.

Iolo Morgannwg – A Brythonic Reconstructionist?

Iolo
Iolo Morgannwg – Etching by Robert Cruikshank

Iolo Morgannwg has a reputation as a notorious forger of Welsh literary history. But perhaps we should remember him as the first Brythonic Reconstructionist. In Wales, where scholars first unmasked his imaginative reconstructions as a misleading distraction from their attempts to produce definitive texts of medieval Welsh authors, he has more recently been re-assessed as an important literary figure in his own right.[*] He was the progenitor of the modern bardic orders, both the direct descendant of his ‘Gorsedd’ which is associated with the annual National Eisteddfod festival held at a different site in Wales each year, and those druidic orders which practice druidry as a path of pagan spirituality. Iolo did not think of himself as a pagan, though he opposed the institutional power of the Church of his day. He, at various times, associated himself with Quakers and particularly Unitarians, portraying the three rays of the Awen as emanating directly from a single God.

But he could certainly be called an Awenydd in his bardic practice, both in those poems which he acknowledged as his own and those which he attributed to others. The Gorsedd he created was not just an exercise in antiquarian speculation, it was a world he created so that he could actively inhabit it, a world in which druidic ceremonies validated in the present the lost inheritance of the past. Perhaps his most notorious forgeries were those of the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym which he ‘discovered’ and persuaded others were genuine, plausibly enough for them to have found their place in editions of that poet’s work. Unlike some other notable forgeries of the Romantic period, and some of Iolo’s other creations, these were not of a wholly imagined poet, but one who existed and whose genuine works survive. What of those poems which did not survive? Iolo thought he knew, after all Dafydd visited him in his dreams and spoke to him. This has been attributed to the laudanum he habitually took to help him sleep. But he was also well-versed in the techniques of strict-metre poetry as written by the medieval Welsh bards and fully immersed in the ethos of Dafydd’s bardic practice and that of other bards, and so – in promoting their work as he did – he could also convincingly re-create it to fill the gaps which he perceived in the surviving record.

Although antiquarians and scholars such as Edward Lhuyd had previously begun to re-connect with the Brythonic past before Iolo, it was he who successfully re-imagined and re-constructed it as a contemporary practice based on both a well-informed and on instinctive knowledge inspired by Awen and also with the skill he asserted an Awenydd must have, such as proficiency in the traditional metres and the word-music of cynghanedd. He was, in that sense, a true inheritor of the spirit of Taliesin who himself berated other bards whom he considered not to be true awen-poets. Many of Taliesin’s poems are now known to be the work of medieval bards who placed themselves in his tradition. As such they wrote not for fame or fortune but for the Awen which held them to proclaim, in Iolo’s words “Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd” (‘The Truth against the World’ – words which are still proclaimed today in the ceremony of the chairing of the bard at the Welsh National Eisteddfod).

Clearly that ‘truth’ was not affected in Iolo’s mind by the feigned authorship of some of the poems he wrote, any more than it was of the 12th and 13th century bards whose work was taken to be that of the 6th century Taliesin. “The truest poetry is the most feigning” says Touchstone in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. W H Auden repeated it in the twentieth century with his own advice for lying poets. So what of the truth or otherwise of the world Iolo created? Consider these lines which he penned in English on visiting the imprisoned radical preacher William Winterbotham:

Of late, as at the close of day
To Newgate’s cell I bent my way
Where Truth is held in thrall
I wrote, that all might plainly see
My name, the Bard of Liberty
And terror seized them all.

Although this is to be seen in the context of Iolo as a political radical, he in no way separated his politics from his bardism [**]. The first five lines are an accurate account of his visit and how he identified himself in the visitor’s book. He was subsequently asked to leave without seeing the person he came to visit. We might think, therefore, that the last line is wishful thinking. Iolo was, on more than one occasion, investigated for sedition when it was feared that the Revolution in France would spread to Britain. So the authorities were certainly worried about him, if not terrified. In championing Truth, he clearly also took liberties, but it may now be time to re-assess him and celebrate all that he subsequently made possible by his activities. For us today ‘The Bard of Liberty’ and the ‘Bardd-Awenol’ might be co-identities we can comfortably inhabit.


 

[*] A recent academic project based at the Centre for Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth : lolo Morgannwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales has resulted in a number of major assessments of Iolo’s life and work, establishing him as an essential figure in Welsh, and indeed British, cultural history.

[**] Iolo was in London in the 1790’s to promote his English-language collection Poems Lyrical and Pastoral and to promote himself as ‘The Bard of Liberty’. It was at this time that he held the first of his Gorsedd ceremonies on Primrose Hill and also circulated in the milieu of other radical poets and artists of the time such as the young S T Coleridge and William Blake.

 

The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach

 

blackbookofcarma00evanuoft_0149
The Opening of the poem inThe Black Book of Carmarthen from the facsimile of Gwenogvryn Evans

One of the most intriguing of the ‘conversation’ poems in early Welsh is that between Taliesin and Ugnach. Two separate manuscripts of the poem have survived, one in The Black Book of Carmarthen and another in a separate manuscript also kept in The National Library of Wales. The poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and a few ambiguous words in one of its englyns have given rise to much speculation about the context for the poem. I will discuss these matters after giving my translation.  I should make it clear here that I read it as a straight-forward encounter with an Otherworld character whose identity I will also suggest below. A remarkable feature of the poem, if it is viewed in this way, is that Taliesin is reluctant to accept the invitation offered to him, given the apparently fearless forays into the Otherworld which are a feature of some of the poems attributed to him.

Who is Ugnach that Taliesin should be so deferential to him and yet refuse his offer of hospitality? In the poem he says that he is ‘Ugnach, Son of Mydno’ but Taliesin claims not to know him and there are no references to this character elsewhere unless we can equate him with the ‘Mugnach’ mentioned in the Triads as the father of Fflur who is beloved of Caswallawn. There he is named with the additional appellation ‘Gorr’ which is usually presumed to be an abbreviation for ‘Corrach’ (dwarf) but it might also be a scribal mistake or variant of ‘cawr’ (giant). Names ending in ‘-ach’ tend to signify supernatural characters such as ‘Wrnach’, a giant and Diwrnach, the Irish owner of a magical cauldron, both of whom feature in Culhwch and Olwen. Attaching the suffix -‘ach’ to the Welsh word ‘gwraig’ (woman) gives ‘gwrach’ (witch). So it might be that the name’s significance is as much in its suffix as in any genealogy.

Following the conventional exchange when two horsemen meet each other, Ugnach is immediately insistent that Taliesin should accept his hospitality – ‘You cannot refuse’ – but Taliesin, as politely as possible, does refuse. He says he is on his way to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion (presumably Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd, a location which is the setting for part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi ?) When asked where he is coming from he says ‘Caer Seon’, a place that has a number of possible locations.

Why will Taliesin not go with Ugnach? It may be that he really is in a hurry, but there is a certain tension in the exchange between them that suggests an evasiveness on Taliesin’s part and an insistent lure on the part of Ugnach. It has something of the atmosphere of the exchanges between the boy and the crone or ‘false knight’ in the folk ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’ and its variants. Here, though, Taliesin does not try to cleverly outwit Ugnach but, in accordance with convention, to politely but firmly decline his offer. Does Taliesin fear the consequences of going with Ugnach, perhaps thinking he may never return? This suggests a skilled mediator with Otherworld beings who is wary of what this one wants with him.

The poem is written in the form of a series of three-line englyns with each of the three lines featuring end-rhyme, something not achievable in the translation but which, along with the syllabic requirements of the englyn form, may have a bearing on the particular choice of words and therefore may be a factor in the issues discussed below.

TALIESIN:

Horseman who rides to the fortress
With white hounds and great horns
I see you but I do not know you.

UGNACH:

Horseman who rides to the estuary
On a steed strong and steadfast
Come with me, you cannot refuse.

TALIESIN:

I cannot go there now
I have no time to delay
Blessings go with you from above and below.

UGNACH:

Warrior who is not seen here often
With the look of one who is fortunate
Where do you go and from where do you come?

TALIESIN:

I come from Caer Seon,
From contesting with strangers;
I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.

UGNACH:

Come with me to my fortress
For shining mead
And fine gold for your spear-rest.

TALIESIN:

I do not know you bold warrior
Who promises mead and a bed,
Your speech honeyed and fair.

UGNACH:

Come to my domain
For wine flowing freely.
Ugnach am I, named son of Mydno.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, blessings to your Gorsedd,
May you have favour and honour.
Taliesin am I and I’ll acknowledge your feast.

UGNACH:

Taliesin, greatest of men,
Most accomplished in bardic contest,
Stay with me until Wednesday.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, most richly endowed,
Grace to your great land;
No censure on me that I cannot stay.

§

On the face of it this seems to be an encounter with a character from the Otherworld, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Gwyn ap Nudd with his pack of white hounds. This is how I read it so this has had a bearing on how I have translated it. But other contexts have been argued for, mainly centring on the interpretation of the fifth englyn. There Taliesin says he comes from ‘Caer Seon’ where, in the second line of the englyn, he says he has been ‘ymlit ac itewon’. On the face of it these words seem to mean ‘fighting (or disputing) with jews’. Taking the word ‘itewon’ to be the earliest example of the modern Welsh word ‘iddewon’ (jews) would certainly give such a meaning for the line. This has led to one interpretation of the poem as an account of Taliesin returning from the Crusades, making ‘Caer Seon’ Jerusalem and ‘jews’ a generic term for those being attacked there [1]. A much more likely word, in that case, would be ‘saracens’ but there are several examples in medieval literature in English as well as Welsh of such words being mixed up or having a general application to refer to ‘others’. Elsewhere, saracens were even conflated with saxons, and the precise identity of peoples from other cultures would not necessarily be distinguished and the word for one could serve as the word for others, particularly if they were all ‘enemies’ [2] For this reason I have preferred to translate ‘itewon’ (which end-rhymes with ‘seon’ and ‘gwidion’) as ‘strangers’. There is, of course, no need to opt for the ‘crusade’ theory even if ‘itewon’ is retained as ‘jews’. There are possible locations for ‘Caer Seon’ on the island of Anglesey and near Conwy on the coast of North Wales. Taliesin could have been engaging in theological disputes or bardic contests (rather than fighting) with jews in either of these places, though it seems unlikely. Or he could have been coming from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, where such a contest is a little more possible.

Some scholars have suggested that ‘itewon’ might be a mistake for ‘cerddorion’, and that Taliesin was therefore engaging in expected bardic contests with other poets, especially if Caer Seon is taken to be a court of Maelgwn Gwynedd at Deganwy near Conwy. Similarly ‘itewon’ has been taken as a developed form of the place name ‘Iudeu’ , thought to be on the Firth of Forth, which would mean that Taliesin had journeyed from the Old North, possibly to North Wales or possibly to another destination in the Old North. But all of this is a distraction from the encounter with Ugnach. It seems clear that Taliesin is being invited to an Otherworld caer and that he refuses the invitation. If we may take Ugnach to be Gwyn ap Nudd two possibilities may be considered. One is that Taliesin’s boastful expeditions to the Otherworld, such as that described in Preiddeu Annwn, are conducted as raids either for treasure or for poetic inspiration. Here he is invited to visit as a guest, or perhaps is being lured there to account for himself. Clearly he is not prepared to go on these terms. The other possibility, suggested by at least one scholar [3] is that he is dead and that Ugnach is bidding him come to the ‘great land’ as he acknowledges it, and that he is either not yet ready to go, or he is going elsewhere. If so Ugnach may well be Gwyn ap Nudd, in another guise. The fact that Taliesin says he journeys to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion has been seen as a possible reference to the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion), that is, he has his sights on a higher destination. The possibility that this would mean ‘Heaven’ in a christian sense, or an alternative Otherworld location of which Gwydion is the ruler – imponderable though that may be – is also worth pondering.

References

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A O H Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

‘Rhai Cerddi Ymddidan’ Brinley F. Roberts in Astudiaethau ar Y Hengerdd ed. Rachel Bromwich & R. Brinley Jones (Cardiff 1978)

Alexander Falileyev ‘Why Jews? Why Caer Seon? Towards Interpretations of Ymddidan Taliesin ac Ugnach’ in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No. 64 Winter 2012

[1] By Graham Isaac in an article discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
[2] As suggested by Marged Haycock in her notes to the poem ‘Kadeir TeŸrnon’ Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007) p.310
[3] Also proposed by Graham Isaac and discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).

Cantre’r Gwaelod : The story of MERERID from the Black Book of Carmarthen

 

Stand up Seithennin
Look out at the waves
Crashing over Gwyddno’s realm.

Woe to the maiden,
The aggrieved cup-bearer
Who bore in her cup the sea’s chagrin.

Woe upon her, the daughter
Of the well whose cup of plenty
Covers the contours with featureless water.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Calling to the gods;
It is known: after arrogance is loss.

Mererid’s outcry from the fortress
Appealing to the gods;
It is known : pride has its redress.

Mererid’s outcry is a grief to me tonight
It brings only anguish;
It is known : presumption has its price.

Mererid’s outcry from the bay mare’s back
The gods bring retribution;
It is known : after plenty there is lack.

Mererid’s outcry calls me from my lodging
No bed for me tonight;
It is known : conceit has its ending.


Interpretation

The poem has been translated – and mistranslated – a number of times. The version above follows the original line by line and hopes to convey the sense of each stanza as written in the medieval Welsh. It is a ‘re-interpretation’ because I have made a few contextual shifts away from previous more or less literal translations. The most significant of these is that I have transferred it to a polytheistic context so where the original refers to God I have referred to the gods.

The assumption of most translators has been that the blame for the flood is being directed at Mererid. But the arrogance and presumption (‘traha’) which is said to have brought it about is assigned to Seithennin in a final verse which I have omitted here. This verse also occurs in the ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ and seems not to belong to this poem. But it refers to Seithennin as ‘the presumptious’ and it could just as well be said that the poems implies that he is to blame. Indeed, in the later version of the story he does become the agent of the flood by getting drunk and forgetting to close the sluice gates.

Here I have tried to shift the focus back on Mererid, not as a blameworthy perpetrator but as one whose office as cup bearer and keeper of the well has been violated. There are other legends about well-keepers being upset or offended resulting in the well flooding a large area. These are usually stories of lake origins. But Mererid is also a cup bearer, an office which carried some status but which might set the holder apart from other court officials. In my view of her she functions as a priestess and representative of the water world. So I have interpreted the word ‘emendiceid’ (accursed) referring to her in stanza 2 & 3 not so much as directed at her but as a reflection on her condition. This, admittedly, does involve a creative change of emphasis from the imperative mood (‘boed’) in these two lines.

The poet’s expression is concise especially in the lines where I have used the repeated phrase “It is known …’ . The poem has a single repeated word ‘gnaud’, literally ‘usual’ or ‘natural’ but also ‘what is’ or ‘known’. The latter seems to me to be a better construction in the translation.

Who speaks the poem? Rachel Bromwich considers the possibility that it is Mererid’s voice heard on the wind long after the event. The poem might, after all, be part of a lost prose saga. But I find it conceivable that it is Seithennin himself who speaks, possibly reflecting on his own part in bringing about the inundation. In the opening line, where he is addressed directly, the pronoun ‘you’ in the familiar form is attached to the verb ‘stand’ [up or out] and this happens again in the next line with ‘look’ where the deponent form of the verb could suggest a reflexive sense. The final verse’s reference to the speaker being driven from his lodging links to the opening and reinforces the possibility that it is he who speaks.

So with Mererid , well-maiden and cup-bearer, in a medieval poem attached to a legend of a drowned land on the coast near where I live. She had long been an evocative presence who seemed to have a significance I had not quite fathomed. But as I thought about the legend and discovered the lore associated with it, her identity began to take shape. Floods from springs or wells when their guardians are offended are the legendary origins of many lakes. These guardians are invariably female and it is sometimes stressed, as with the case of Mererid, that she is a maiden. Two words are used to convey this in the poem. In one line she is referred to as ‘morvin’ (simply maiden), but in another line as ‘machteith’ which is also a term indicating a court office. Rachel Bromwich comments that “both interpretations should be borne in mind”.

Many years ago doing quite different research I needed to look at references to protective deities of cities. Ancient cities and other settlements had magical as well as physical walls around them. Gateways through the walls could be physically sealed and locked but magical gateways needed magical seals or keys to open or shut them. The title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (now inherited by the Pope) originally indicated one who was adept at bridging and sealing protective boundaries. The Vestal Virgins were an institution that was seen to protect Rome, the virginity of the vestals being an essential element in this. In earlier societies this function often inhered in a virgin deity. The virginity of Athene as protectress of Athens was stressed. Studies of the sources for Homer’s Iliad indicate that Troy was seen to be protected in this way and one of these relates that the prophetess Cassandra undid her girdle  as the horse was brought through the city walls in a symbolic breaching of their magical protection.

It seemed to me that the same protective function could apply to well maidens. Wells were often seen as gateways to the Otherworld and if these gateways were not properly protected the steady flow of blessed water might become a deluge, particularly if the guardian of the well ceases to become a virgin either by her own volition or by her violation. But Mererid is also a ‘cup-bearer’. Reading Enright’s elucidations (3) about the role of cup-bearers in Celtic and Germanic cultures and the proposed origins of their functions and identity in the goddess Rosmerta (the ‘great provider’); the ambiguous status of Wealtheow, Hrodgar’s queen and cup-bearer, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; the story of the virgin prophetess Veleda in Tacitus’ Germania; all began to bring the picture into focus.

Rosmerta’s emblems are the cup, ladle and bucket. Her cup an emblem of plenty, proffered at the feast; in Gaul she is associated in at least once place with a sacred spring. In her continuing identity in the persons of cup bearers her role becomes differentiated and therefore ambiguous, particularly in later contexts when the religious significance may have been lost but the magical status still remained resonant. A cup bearer might be a maiden and hold an office as such at court but equally there might be an implied sexual element involved in what she represents associated with fertility. Enright says as part of his discussion of these elements, “We may therefore reiterate an argument made constantly in this study – that prophecy, sexuality and the offering of liquor were all part of the same mental construct for Celts and, perhaps, somewhat later, for Germans.” Where her maiden status is associated with protection, the loss of it also implies loss of protection. But it might in other contexts be associated with fertility and so becoming sexually active brings plenty. Her survival into later legends, folklore and story may emphasise only one or the other of these functions exclusively and so appear to be only about a single event such as an inundation or a symbolic offering of plenty by a cup bearer, though often the portrayal of these events retains an aura of something deeper.

What of Mererid? She is a well maiden, whose function is to protect the well. She also bears the cup of plenty. So could her seduction or violation have removed the protection and so caused the flood? And could there be an underlying sense of fertility here too, the release of life-giving waters, but disguised in the story of a catastrophic inundation? Perhaps. It was with such as sense of these possibilities that I moved from undertaking a translation of the poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where I felt constrained to at least preserve the narrative and thematic integrity of the original (in spite of also attempting a re-interpretation of the context) to writing my own, freer version of the same poem in an act of imaginative re-casting. Here it is:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

(A free adaptation of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen)

 

Wake up Seithennin

Can’t you see what’s happening

The wild sea is rushing in.

 

The well’s cup-bearer,

That girl you had beside you –

You thought it nothing just to take her.

 

Now she’s gone, the well

She keeps is overflowing

And running to the sea’s swell.

 

Can you hear her call

Ringing out across the water?

Your fault has brought you to a fall.

 

Can you hear her berate

The fate that’s brought her

To this end – early or late

 

She sings her lament

Over Gwyddno’s flooded meadows

The cup of plenty now is spent.

 

She rides through the flow –

Mererid – on the bay mare’s back

Her song lulling the pull and tow

 

Of the plaintive waves:

A pearl plucked from its oyster;

Like your bed, empty of its treasure.

There is a single word in the original poem ‘cwyn’ that has been alternatively translated ‘complaint’ and ‘feast’. Did she complain about what had happened to her (as I imply in my translations) or might we suppose that the offering of her cup as a feast has other implications? A mythological reading might include both possibilities simultaneously. Is she here the victim of a violation or an active participant in releasing the flood? You would think as I have translated the poem twice with the same implication, that I was certain about this. But I’m not.

References:

Jackson Knight  Epic and Anthropology (London, 1967)

M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)

The poem is No. 39 in The Black Book of Carmarthen.

The original text with a translation, discussion and notes by Rachel Bromwich appears in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge, 1950). The discussion compares the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod with the Breton legend of Ker-Is.

There is also a translation by Jenny Rowlands in Early Welsh Saga Poetry (Cambridge, 1990).

Merlin, Taliesin and Maponos

220px-Moreau,_Gustave_-_Hésiode_et_la_Muse_-_1891

 

As I am Merlin
And again Taliesin
Eternal my singing
My prophecies unending.

So runs the lines of part of the ‘conversation’ (Ymddiddan) between Merlin and Taliesin in The Black Book of Carmarthen. In what sense can two people speaking to each other be thought of as the same person? The lines have been translated as though they mean ‘I Merlin, and Taliesin before me’. There is, perhaps, room for ambiguity in ‘Can ys mi myrtin guydi taliessin’ and so expanding the lines to make sense of them could, indeed, yield that translation. A note to this line in Jarman’s edition of the Black Book indicates that the reading of ‘guydi’ (modern Welsh ‘wedi’ = ‘after’) is also construed as ‘before’, or ‘in the guise of’ in medieval Welsh.  Consider too the words of Elis Gruffydd from his 16th century Chronicle of the Ages:

Some people hold the opinion and maintain firmly that Merlin was a spirit in human form, who was in that shape from the time of Vortigern until the beginning of King Athur’s time when he disappeared. After that, this spirit appeared again in the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd at which time he is called Taliesin, who is said to be alive yet in a place called Caer Sidia. Thence he appeared a third time in the days of Merfyn Frych son of Esyllt, whose son he was said to be, and in this period he was called Merlin the Mad. From that day to this, he said to be resting in Caer Sidia, whence certain people believe firmly he will rise up once again before doomsday.

(Trans Patrick K Ford. Viator 7)

The idea that Merlin and Taliesin were the same person in different guises was common enough for Elis Gruffydd to report it. Patrick Ford, discussing of the Taliesin legend in the Introduction to his Ystoria Taliesin, says that the two prophets are “aliases of a single poetic spirit” and hence the same figure appears in Irish texts such as the Senchan Torpeist bard identified as “the Spirit of Poetry“.

But can we identify that “spirit” as a god? Consider this from the discussion of the evolution of the Taliesin legend from Ifor Williams:

Stage 1
Taliesin was one of the old gods of the Welsh mythological tradition who developed a reputation as a bard or as an inspirer of the bardic arts.

Stage 2
Taliesin becomes a legendary bard (9th-10th c)

Stage 3
The poems, already becoming Christianised in Stage 2, become assimilated to the Christian tradition and lose much of their ‘druidic’ character though retaining an aura of this as part of the bardic ethos.

Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)

This legend  developed separately from the poems written to Urien in the sixth century by the historical Taliesin, though they were later confused particularly when bards began to adopt the persona of Taliesin as an inspired awenydd.

So if he was (is) a god, which one? Perhaps the one who entered the shepherd boy in Henry Vaughan’s account of bardic possession in his letter to John Aubrey. If the shepherd lad is a type of the Divine Child and if the ‘ghillie’ of the Irish tale of Senchan Torpeist can also be so construed, is this an appearance, variously of Mabon (<Maponos) or Aengus Og (Mac ind Oc) both epithets of the Divine Child? Or is it, rather, that when the inspiration is breathed into them they become the god that breathes it. The source of the Awen, the divine breeze that blows through the world.

 

kandinsky-lyre

The End of the Old North?

cilmeri
The Memorial to Llewelyn ap Gruffudd at Cilmeri

 

nyt oes

“There is no counsel, no lock, no opening…”

So wrote the bard Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch in response to the death of
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native Prince of Wales in December 1282.

It is a record of despair. The death of Llywelyn and the subsequent invasion by Edward I meant the end of a line of rulers of Gwynedd that stretched back through Maelgwn Gwynedd to Cunedda and the Brythonic chieftains of ‘The Old North’. Wales had retained the Brythonic heritage of the island of Britain and now a Norman-English king invaded and crowned his own son as Prince of Wales.

What is more, Llywelyn’s head had been cut off after he was killed. Although they allowed his body to be buried in Wales they took his head to London and displayed it on London Bridge. Was this a simple act of spite or something done in full knowledge of its symbolic significance? Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch certainly made much of the beheading:

“His head has fallen and with it our pride
Fear and surrender are all we have left
His head has fallen – a dragon’s head
Noble it was , fierce to our foes
His head is stuck with an iron pole
The searing pain of it runs through my soul,
This land is empty – our spirit cut down.
His head had honour in nine hundred lands
Proud king, swift hawk, fierce wolf
True Lord of Aberffraw”

(from my translation of the elegy which can be viewed in full HERE)

The cutting off of heads in Midwinter is a motif of the season. Think of Gawain riding through the borderlands of Wales and Cheshire to meet the Green Knight to offer his own head a year after he had cut off the Green Knight’s head and it had magically re-attached itself. Gawain rode from the court of Arthur who himself, in another story, disappeared into the Otherworld awaiting his time after being mortally wounded.

Then consider the episode in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi where the mortally injured Brân asks the other survivors of the battle in Ireland to cut off his head:

‘Take the head’ said he ‘and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the Birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head.

In the Welsh Triads it is said that the burial of the head of Brân protected Britain from invasion, but that Arthur removed it “because it did not seem right to him that his island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own”(*).

Severed heads, it has been claimed, were an integral part of pagan celtic religious practice(**). Be that as it may, as we approach the Winter Solstice we might think of rebirth or renewal. But before re-birth there must be a death. In the story of Brân, in order for him to retain his protective function, his head must be struck off and buried. Llywelyn’s bard could not see this because the head had been taken to London not, as Brân’s, for burial but to be stuck on a iron pole on London Bridge. There could be ‘no counsel, no lock, no door’ to be opened at the appointed time and so no opening to a new life. His despair is understandable historically.

But the heritage of the Old North lived on in Wales, nurtured by bards as a sustaining inspiration for renewal. It was taken up again by Owain Glyndwr two hundred years later before he disappeared without being captured so could potentially rise again, and it has never been forgotten, inspiring bards writing in the Welsh strict metres still today (***).

This is both a universal and a personal initiatory theme. However labyrinthine the paths of the dead, however gloomy the darkness of the Netherworld, shall we not follow our guide on the path, the dark figure on the Grey Mare, through the last shadows and on past forgetting to where we have always lived, and always will? And will the Sun not rise again on our hopes as well as our fears? May the gods will it so.

* Triad 37
** See, for instance, Anne Ross Pagan Celtic Britain chapter two.
*** See for example, the work of Gerallt Lloyd Owen whose awdl Cilmeri hauntingly re-plays the events of Llywelyn’s death.